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Foiling a satanic plot to destroy the world

18 January 2019

The SealThe Seal by Meg Hutchinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A disappointing read.

It’s written by Meg Hutchinson writing as Margaret Astbury, writing as Meg Hutchinson.

It has the ingredients of an interesting plot, but they are badly handled and it is badly written.

A bad-tempered autistic unemployed ex-commando and a chain-smoking journalist on a local newspaper live in a small town in the English Midlands, where the journalist is sent by her editor, under protest, to report on a scene of vandalism in a local cemetery, where the jobless man sees a ghost. The journalist suddenly gets interested in the story of the cemetery, which her editor has lost interest in, and she and her jobless buddy want to keep it secret from a dyspeptic detective with whom they had had some sort of run-in in a previous book.

The cemetery incident, the reader is informed, was the work of a local coven of satanists who seem to have stepped straight out of the pages of a novel by Dennis Wheatley, and for the first 30 pages or so I thought I was reading a piece of Dennis Wheatley fan fiction, but Wheatley writes much better than this — at least he has a coherent narrative in novels like The devil rides out.. But we are never told what the Satanists were actually doing in the cemetery, or trying to do, only that they thought they had made some kind of mistake while they were there.

The reader is presumed to know what happened in the previous book in which these three characters appeared, and the reader is also presumed to be familiar with their relationships with some of the other characters in the earlier book who don’t appear in this one.

The characters are flat, and each seems to have one main characteristic that gets emphasised out of all proportion. The journalist has a capacious handbag in which she carries cigarettes by the carton, and quite a lot of the narrative is devoted to her search for places in which she is permitted to smoke them, and the frustration caused by her failure to find them quickly enough. The jobless ex-commando behaves inexplicably rudely to people when he is supposed to be trying to win their cooperation. The detective is as addicted to stomach tablets as the journalist is to cigarettes.

I kept falling asleep in passages where one or other of the characters is agonising over a decision, where the reader has to wait three or four pages to discover what courses of action the character was trying to decide between. Should I tell him? Shouldn’t I? On the one hand…. On the other hand…. Tell him what? the reader wants to know.

There are curious convolutions of language, like “bodyguards, who bothered to make little secret of the fact they were armed”. As characters are always saying in American soaps, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

There is the newly-recruited satanist who enjoys the rituals and consorting with the idle rich and with evil spirits, but draws the line at murder, but the book opens with him being recruited by the satanists because they helped him to cover up a murder in the first place.

The ingredients for a good story are all there: the evil satanists doing the devil’s work of sowing discord and conflict among the nations of the earth, the international arms trade, the ordinary people like the journalist and the jobless man (who eventually gets a job with one of the satanists, and is threatened by them) who foil the plot. but in the telling of the story the author makes a complete hash of it.

View all my reviews

So much for the review of this book, but it also raises the issue of evil, the devil and political conspiracies that go beyond this particular book. As I’ve noted, the notion of satan and satanists and satanic conspiracies in this book seems to be lifted straight out of Dennis Wheatley, who was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, both of whom wrote about related topics, Williams in War in heaven and Lewis in That Hideous Strength. The difference is that Williams and Lewis had a theological point to make, while Dennis Wheatley was just trying to write potboilers to make money. So he mixed up a lot of eclectic notions of devil worship, satanism and black magic to make the scariest combination that he thought would thrill readers and thus sell his books. The result is a rather crudely materialistic notion of spiritual power.

Lewis and Williams are more subtle, and Williams himself moved in occult circles, and so could be said to be writing from personal experience in his descriptions of such things. I have tried to explore or at least allude to them in a small way in my own novel The Year of the Dragon, It is historical fact that the South African security forces put hexed nails in Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s driveway, and at least considered doing something similar with a bewitched baboon foetus.

What were they thinking?

Were they expecting some kind  Dennis Wheatley/Meg Hutchinson swirling mist to consume the Archbishop, caught in his driveway where he would not have time to surround himself with a circle of salt? Or what?

I’ve discussed some of these things in other blog posts here, here and here, for anyone interested.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 January 2019 4:38 am

    I’m amazed … that you gave this book two stars … that you finished reading something so badly written… that anyone published anything so badly written. Thank you for reading it so we didn’t have to.

    On to your Inklings related points. I think if someone is going to write anything involving the devil in any guise, they ought to have a coherent theology, as Lewis and Williams did.

    Still trying to figure out where the TV series Lucifer is going, as I am not quite sure how many theological narratives they’re going to pull in.

    And I was going to order “The Year of the Dragon” but Amazon says you’ve withdrawn it. Not fair, I want to read it.

    • 20 January 2019 4:06 pm

      I’m not sure why I have it two stars, perhaps one would have been better. I suppose it was perhaps the plot ingredients, which were there, if badly handled. I reserve one-star ratings for books like Temple by Matthew Reilly. And I persisted because I was interested in the ingredients and how they were handled. I’ll probably mention it again, in contrast top the book I’m reading now, which is so much better written that I might overlook its faults!

      The Year of the Dragon has not been withdrawn. It seems that Amazon has just got pernickety about the way it handles books from other ebook distributors, and you can still order it from most of the others, or direct from Smashwords.

      • 20 January 2019 4:10 pm

        Ah good, I will try Smashwords. Thank you.

        Also, will avoid the one star books for sure!

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